- see also
- earth, land, soil
newstatesman.com 19-4-2023 You can’t eat profits. A democratic vision for England’s tormented farmlands. By Kai Heron, Alex Heffron and Rob Booth
It is a poorly hidden secret that England’s food system isn’t about producing healthy, affordable and ecologically sustainable foods. It’s about creating profits. In 2022 the food and drink industry contributed £30bn to the British economy, making it the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. One might imagine this revenue would be evenly distributed across the supply chain, but they are heavily concentrated at its end. Last year, for instance, supermarkets announced record profits while on average farmers received less than 1p for every block of cheese or loaf of bread sold, and a shocking 29 per cent of British farms failed to make any money at all.
Such narrow margins encourage farmers to use cheaper but ecologically damaging land management practices. Britain’s farming sector is responsible for extensive waterway pollution, dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and catastrophic declines in biodiversity. Farmers don’t create these outcomes because they don’t care about their lands and communities. They create them because the economics of food production and England’s regulatory landscape encourages them.
In principle all of this is about to change. After several years of deliberation, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has unveiled the funding details of England’s post-Brexit agricultural subsidy system, known as the environmental land management scheme (Elms). The scheme will be phased in over six years and is due to replace the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2027. According to the government, Elms will transform England’s food system, ushering in a new green era of food production and ecologically regenerative land management that will help Britain achieve net zero by 2050. Yet in practice Elms is likely to force farmers out of the industry, consolidate land in the hands of a small landowning elite, and do little to mitigate global heating, while guaranteeing that Britain misses an historic opportunity to create a socially and ecologically just food system.
CAP needed replacing. Under the EU-directed scheme, large-scale wealthier farmers unjustly received more financial support than smallholders. The schemes also didn’t go far enough when encouraging ecologically sound land management. Today, the majority of the UK’s domestically grown food is produced through environmentally damaging farming practices. Many of these require substances such as synthetic fertiliser and pesticides and are derived directly from fossil fuels. In contrast, under Elms, the government says land managers will receive “public money for public goods” including “ecosystem services”. Payments will be linked to ecologically regenerative practices including creating wildlife habitats, planting trees, improving soils and improving nitrogen management. Defra says the system is designed to be easily accessible for farmers, and that it will serve as a keystone in Britain’s net zero ambitions.
In reality, Elms is a superficial change to policy that favours some farmers over others and which will put some out of business altogether. In part this is because Elms adopts an “income foregone plus costs” approach to payments, which will see lowland farmers paid more than upland farmers for the same land management practices. Ecologically sensitive grassland management systems, for example, will be paid 35 per cent less per hectare in the uplands than in the lowlands. Not only is this unjust but it runs against ecological common sense: it is better to encourage producers on the less productive uplands to focus on ecosystem repair than it is to encourage producers in the more productive lowlands.
These regional discrepancies have received sharp criticism from producers. James Rebanks, a shepherd and the author of English Pastoral (2020), has called Elms a “catastrophe”. According to Rebanks, after being reassured in consultations that Elms would empower upland farmers to reduce livestock numbers and shift towards environmentally regenerative practices, many upland producers now feel betrayed. They are right to. The University of Cumbria environmental professor Julia Aglionby calculated that the annual farm business income of upland farms will decline by two thirds, to as low as £16,000. This would see the hourly wage of some upland producers drop below minimum wage. Faced with such low payments, many upland farmers will be tempted to opt out of Elms altogether and intensify current ecologically detrimental farming practices in a desperate bid to stay in business.
If producers still can’t turn a profit, they’ll be forced to sell their farms. And that might be part of the plan. When considered alongside England’s extortionate land costs, Elms seems almost designed to ensure that the most likely purchasers of newly available land won’t be a new generation of green farmers or community-led rewilding projects but hedge funds and corporations hoping to secure rental incomes, profit from carbon credit schemes, or offset emissions. Evidence suggests that far from mitigating global heating, carbon credits may exacerbate it by greenwashing ongoing emissions. Nevertheless, Elms encourages corporate offsetting schemes such as “rewilding” projects and tree-planting initiatives. The result could easily lead to a green grab, and an extension of what the geographer Brett Christophers calls “the new enclosures”, or the consolidation of landownership in the hands of an increasingly powerful minority. An amazing two thirds of the UK is already owned by just 0.36 per cent of the population, who can undemocratically decide how the country’s land is used. This makes a national land management plan capable of tackling the UK’s ongoing contributions to ecological collapse almost impossible to deliver.
These negative outcomes are a product of Elms’s combination of neoliberal market interventions and a “land-sparing” approach to land management. The former involves shifting responsibility for land management on to individual farmers and private markets. The latter is the idea that land in some areas ought to be “set aside” for nature, while land elsewhere should be worked for maximal yields and at great environmental cost.
It doesn’t have to be this way. CAP was an unfair system, but Elms could be otherwise. Brexit gives England the opportunity to break decisively with past agricultural policy and lay the groundwork for a new era of ecologically sustainable food production. This will require democratising food systems and transitioning towards a “land sharing” approach to food production that integrates food systems and ecosystem restoration through agroecological farming.
Agroecology produces culturally sensitive, ecologically regenerative, high-yielding foods and fibres without relying on energy intensive, and often fossil fuel-derived inputs produced off-farm. Unlike land-sparing approaches to food production, it maximises biodiversity and promotes wildlife conservation by farming with rather than against natural systems. This means it can replace externally produced synthetic fertiliser or imported animal feeds with local or on-farm-produced ones. Not only is this better for Britain’s ecosystems but it offers a chance to address the “unequal exchange” between the Global North and Global South that sees animal feed flown to the UK from the Americas, causing soil degradation, habitat destruction and the murder of indigenous peoples there.
The world’s food chains are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of global heating, international conflict and manipulation by an ever-dwindling and yet ever-more powerful set of corporations. Just two companies, Syngenta Group and Bayer, control more than 40 per cent of the global seed markets and just four companies control around 70-90 per cent of the global grain trade. As communities in the UK and beyond struggle under a cost-of-living crisis, these companies are recording unprecedented profits. There is an urgent need to assert a more effective and democratic vision of our food system’s future that secures a living wage for Britain’s farmers and encourages them to create good-quality, nutritious and ecologically regenerative foods. This will require public investment in food and farming infrastructure up and down the food system’s supply chain.
Government should support and expand existing movements, such as Land in Our Names which encourages black communities in Britain to reconnect with the land, and policy proposals that seek to implement a socially and ecologically just food system. Public-common partnerships in food production and rebuilding England’s county farm estates would provide an alternative to exorbitant and insecure private rents that prevent farmers from planning for the future. A “right to food” combined with actions such as an improved public procurement strategy, could also be used to increase domestic demand and improve access to healthy foods if facilitated by investment in cooperative processing and retailing infrastructure. Ideas such as these must be encouraged by future agricultural policy. Otherwise instead of delivering a greener and more just food system, governments may end up doing just the opposite.
economist.com 25-3-2023 The cucumber Saudis: how the Dutch got too good at farming – A small, fertiliser-rich country sniffs the limits of its old model
economist.com 12-2022 How food affects the mind, as well as the body – It turns out you are what you eat after all
>food, farming, fermentation
theguardian 24-11-2022 Embrace what may be the most important green technology ever. It could save us all – Never mind the yuck factor: precision fermentation could produce new staple foods, and end our reliance on farming – by George Monbiot
…”… Let’s focus for a moment on technology. Specifically, what might be the most important environmental technology ever developed: precision fermentation. Precision fermentation is a refined form of brewing, a means of multiplying microbes to create specific products. It has been used for many years to produce drugs and food additives. But now, in several labs and a few factories, scientists are developing what could be a new generation of staple foods.
The developments I find most interesting use no agricultural feedstocks. The microbes they breed feed on hydrogen or methanol – which can be made with renewable electricity – combined with water, carbon dioxide and a very small amount of fertiliser. They produce a flour that contains roughly 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any major crop can achieve (soy beans contain 37%, chick peas, 20%). When they are bred to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create much better replacements than plant products for meat, fish, milk and eggs. And they have the potential to do two astonishing things.
The first is to shrink to a remarkable degree the footprint of food production. One paper estimates that precision fermentation using methanol needs 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural means of producing protein: soy grown in the US. This suggests it might use, respectively, 138,000 and 157,000 times less land than the least efficient means: beef and lamb production. Depending on the electricity source and recycling rates, it can also enable radical reductions in water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is contained, it avoids the spillover of waste and chemicals into the wider world caused by farming. …
The second astonishing possibility is breaking the extreme dependency of many nations on food shipped from distant places. Nations in the Middle East, north Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central America do not possess sufficient fertile land or water to grow enough food of their own …
Precision fermentation is at the top of its price curve, and has great potential for steep reductions. Farming multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the bottom of its price curve: it has pushed these creatures to their limits, and sometimes beyond. If production is distributed (which I believe is essential), every town could have an autonomous microbial brewery, making cheap protein-rich foods tailored to local markets. This technology could, in many nations, deliver food security more effectively than farming can. There are four main objections. …”…
theguardian 11-2022 ‘It all hinges on the herders’: world’s largest soil carbon removal project enlists Kenyan pastoralists | Global development – A scheme that sets down strict grazing plans to benefit the environment and generate revenue for local people was highlighted at Cop27 as a future model – by Peter Muiruri
…”…In what Kenyan president William Ruto told an audience at Cop27 was an “exemplary project”, the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project is the world’s first large-scale grasslands soil carbon removal project reliant on modified livestock grazing practices, and the first to work with pastoralists who use communal land resources. The project that began in December 2012 is also the first of its kind to use the new VM0032 methodology focusing entirely on soil carbon removals. The project area of 14 conservancies under the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is monitored through the remote-sensing Normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) system, which analyses satellite photos of the Earth’s surface to evaluate plant health and detect how grazing is affecting vegetation.In 2017, the NRT enlisted the services of Native, a carbon trading company to market the carbon credits. Three years later, 3.2m emissions reduction credits covering 2013-2016 were verified, generating $14.6m (£12.25m). …The issue of carbon offsets continues to be controversial, with the UN environment programme warning a few years ago that “carbon offsets have been used by polluters as a free pass for inaction”, adding that such offsets “risk giving the dangerous illusion of a ‘fix’ that will allow our billowing emissions to just continue to grow”. … Despite the warnings, several African countries are ready to cash in on dollar flows from carbon trading after the inauguration of the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI) at Cop27. …”…
The Guardian related topics
- Global development
- Carbon offsetting
- Carbon capture and storage (CCS)
- Environmental sustainability
>agribusiness, sustainable farming, transition
theguardian.com 3-11-2022 Big agriculture warns farming must change or risk ‘destroying the planet’ – Report sponsored by some of the largest food and farming businesses finds pace of shift to sustainable practices too slow – by Dominic Rushe
rte.ie 26-11-2022 From agricultural land to nature reserve in five years – A couple who in five years transformed agricultural land in Co Wicklow into a nature reserve hope to inspire others to take action to halt biodiversity loss. – By Eleanor Mannion
ft.com 8-10-2022 The reinvention of farming has come too far to be threatened now – by Sarah Langford
>green, capitalisation, methane, manure, mercantilism
econlib.crg 26-9-2022 Manure, Methane, and Mercantilism – by Paul Schwennesen
foodnavigator.com 9-2022 Plant-based brands accused of creating ‘a category failure, maybe one of the biggest in food industry history’ – Is plant-based really resonating with consumers? And if not, why? – By Katy Askew
>food, banana, avocado, biodiversity
theguardian.com 12-4-2022 Our food system isn’t ready for the climate crisis – The world’s farms produce only a handful of varieties of bananas, avocados, coffee and other foods – leaving them more vulnerable to the climate breakdown – by Nina Lakhani, Alvin Chang, Rita Liu, Andrew Witherspoon
…”Even in the best-case scenario, global heating is expected to make the earth less suitable for the crops that provide most of our calories. If no action is taken to curtail the climate crisis, crop losses will be devastating. Nature has a simple way to adapt to different climates: genetic diversity. Even if some plants react poorly to higher temperatures or less rainfall, other varieties can not only survive – but thrive, giving humans more options on what to grow and eat. But the powerful food industry had other ideas and over the past century, humans have increasingly relied on fewer and fewer crop varieties that can be mass produced and shipped around the world. “The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner and the public is unaware and unconcerned,” writes Dan Saladino in his book Eating to Extinction. The story of the humble banana, one of the cheapest, most popular and most traded fruits globally, shows us why diversity is so crucial …”…
>farming, coffee, sustainability tracing
bbc.co.uk/ 5-4-2022 Does it matter if we know where our food comes from? By Elna Schutz
…”…Shalini Unnikrishnan, is managing director and partner at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which supports a variety of projects working on food tracing, including at OpenSC. She says consumers are increasingly willing to change their food shopping habits for more sustainable products, including paying more money for certain items. Mrs Unnikrishnan adds that while across the so-called ‘digital agriculture’ sector, there are lots of small exciting companies and pilots popping-up, policy frameworks are needed to scale these businesses up. “I think regulation standards are really fundamental to make sure that the changes happening, are happening at scale,” she says, because these provide companies, farmers and buyers “a signal of what is required and a framework for standards.” …”…
foodunfolded.com 8-2021 HOW A PIG FARMER BECAME AN ORGANIC FARMER | PORTRAIT IN GERMANY – Until the end of 2019, 12.9% of all agricultural businesses in Germany had farmed their land according to the rules of organic farming. Michael Reber is a conventional farmer in the midst of transitioning, albeit not entirely voluntarily. By UTE VON DER LIETH
mongabay.com 8-2-2022 Gates Foundation among investors backing troubled DRC palm plantation – by Ashoka Mukpo
- the Oakland Institute has named the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with the endowments of the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis as among the top investors in Kuramo Capital Management (KCM).
- KCM is the majority owner of Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC), which operates three oil palm plantations in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo.
- According to the Oakland Institute, Congolese police and PHC security forces have been repeatedly accused of violence against local villagers over the past year.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with a number of prominent U.S. university endowments are among the top investors in a troubled set of oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report from the Oakland Institute. Researchers with the group told Mongabay that in the past year, incidents of brutality by police and security guards against local villagers and workers at the plantations had increased.
“We have a long history of abuses, but this last year has been really, really bad and actually there has been an increase in violence and repression of local communities,” said Frédéric Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute.
The plantations lie in the remote, forested north of the DRC, and are operated by Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC). They were originally established in 1911 when the British industrialist William Lever, founder of Unilever, received a grant of land from Belgian colonial authorities then occupying the Congo. Some of the rural villagers living on that land were subsequently pressed into forced labor on the plantations.
In 2009, Unilever sold its stake in PHC’s 100,000-hectare (247,000-acre) oil palm holdings to the Canadian company Feronia, who received $150 million from European development banks to finance the venture. But after a decade of deep losses caused in part by a crash in the price of palm oil, Feronia declared bankruptcy. With assistance from the banks, in 2019 the bulk of PHR’s ownership was sold at a bargain valuation to Kuramo Capital Management (KCM), helmed and founded by Walé Adeosun, once a member of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.
According to the Oakland Institute, among KCM’s largest investors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the endowment funds of the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis. South Africa’s Government Employees Pension Fund and the U.K.’s Royal County of Berkshire Pension Fund were also among those investing with KCM. …
According to an investigation by the Pulitzer Center and El Pais, in June 2021 PHC dumped a load of toxic chemicals — including expired batteries, pesticides, and lead products — into an open lot next to a footpath less than a kilometer away from a nearby town, then set the pile on fire.
The incidents follow a pattern of controversy for PHC, which has long been criticized for mistreating workers and damaging the environment. According to a 2019 report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, PHC was underpaying already low Congolese wages, failing to provide its workers with adequate protection against dangerous pesticides, and dumping untreated runoff waste into major nearby waterways. Luciana Téllez Chávez, the author of that report, said that claims of poverty reduction and improved local livelihoods pushed by European development banks financing PHC didn’t match what she saw on the ground. …
But Mousseau said that more than a year after KCM’s acquisition of PHC, the ongoing violence and environmental violations at its plantations show that while its ownership may have changed, not much else has.
“What we hope is that students at these institutions can mobilize their universities,” he said. “If whoever is responsible for managing the endowments are turning a blind eye, put pressure on them to do the right thing.”
sky.com 2-2-2022 Ending animal agriculture and planting trees on empty fields is ‘best chance’ to slow climate change, scientists say – A professor behind the analysis says “this is the biggest opportunity to turn back the clock on climate change” and encourages other scientists to assess his conclusions with an open mind. by Thomas Moore
theguardian.com 12/2021 City allotments could be as productive as conventional farms, research finds – Two-year pilot study in Brighton and Hove shows value of urban food production, say scientists by Miranda Bryant
theguardian.com 16/11/2021 ‘Farmers are digging their own graves’: true cost of growing food in Spain’s arid south – Intensive agriculture’s insatiable thirst for water is turning wetland to wasteland, draining rivers and polluting groundwater – by Stephen Burgen
ft.com 10/2021 Flour power: three men and a farming revolution
amazon.co.uk goodreads.com 1/2022 Hooked: How We Became Addicted to Processed Food by Michael Moss
amazon.co.uk 2/2021 Who Poisoned Your Bacon Sandwich?: The Dangerous History of Meat Additives by Guillaume Coudray
ft.com 4/2021 Additives and Addiction by Simon Ings
futurefarming.com 5/2021 The technology that could stop the use of plastic mulch – Australian Research Organisation CSIRO has developed a sprayable biodegradable polymer membrane that can help farmers produce more, while using less water, nutrients and agrochemicals.
thelocal.se 5/2021 Greta Thunberg launches farm campaign: ‘We are creating the perfect conditions for diseases to spill over’
theguardian.com 4/2021 Mark Bittman’s warning: the true costs of our cheap food and the American diet by Oliver Milman
From Mesopotamian irrigation to McDonalds, the bestselling food writer tells Oliver Milman that his new history of food is his most important work
“The global, industrialized food system faces increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact, given its voracious appetite for land is linked to mass deforestation, water pollution and a sizable chunk of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The implied trade-off has been that advances in agriculture have greatly reduced hunger and driven societies out of poverty due to improved productivity and efficiencies. But Mark Bittman, the American food author and journalist, argues in his new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk that these supposed benefits are largely illusionary…”…
slate.com/technology 1/2021 Why I Stopped Defending GMOs – The scientific evidence is important, but there’s more to consider. By Kavin Senapathy
orb.org 2019 Sprouting Doubt Shannon Osaka reviews Seeds of Science by Mark Lynas and The War o Science by Shawn Otto – GMO
Art by Grace Crabtree
…oppposed GMOs. ‘I could betray my friends, or I could betray my conscience,’ he writes. ‘Which would it be?’ *
In the end, Lynas prioritised his conscience. In the first half of Seeds of Science, he attempts to debunk every wrongheaded GMO belief he ever harboured, from claims that GM crops cause environmental devastation to the moral culpability of Monsanto. In some places, such as in his polemic against “fake news” peddled by the environmental movement, his interventions are long overdue. In 2008, news outlets widely reported that thousands of Indian farmers had committed suicide because they couldn’t afford to pay Monsanto for genetically engineered cotton seeds. The story was pushed by Vandana Shiva, a highprofile Indian activist who has called GMOs a form of ‘food totalitarianism’ and referred to the introduction of insect-resistant Bt cotton into the state of Maharashtra as a ‘genocide’.
But, as Lynas points out, all available evidence shows that suicides among Indian farmers are no higher than other countries in the developed or developing world, including Scotland and France. Journalists, including Lynas himself and New Yorker correspondent Michael Specter, travelled to Maharashtra and found no evidence of the massive suicide waves Shiva and anti-GMO campaigners pointed to. Lynas writes, ‘The Indian farmer suicide story is a myth, built … by those like Vandana Shi-va with an ideological axe to grind and little concern about the true facts.’
In other places, however, Lynas seems blinded by his own enthusiasm. Eager as he is to debunk GMO fears, he conflates the connection between GMOs and health (a question that science can answer) with more philosophical oppositions. We can think GMOs are safe to eat, but still question whether humans should be modifying genomes in the first place. We can believe GM crops are safe for the environment, and still critique Monsanto’s patenting process and its monopolisation of the global food supply. When Lynas writes a chapter lionising the history of Monsanto, he sounds less like a rational man of science, and more like a man who has traded one ideology for another.
And while science itself may not be ideological, its interpretation, and the public’s belief in its findings, certainly is. Otto argues that the role of val-ues and ideology in scientific trust has plagued communication (and democracy) for decades. The British philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon put it best when he wrote, in 1620:
What a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he re-jects difficult things from impatience of research … [and] things not common-ly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.
While Lynas initially wanted to believe that his change of heart was based on cold, hard, scientific facts, modern psychology has proven the opposite. Science communication is often based on an “information deficit model”; if only the public were more informed, scientists argue, they would accept findings from anthropogenic climate change to the safety of GMOs.
But the truth is more complicated. For example, on the issue of climate change, studies have found that greater scientific literacy actually increases polarization. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center Study, highly educated conservatives in the US are less likely to believe in climate change than their less educated counterparts. Otto attributes this to an educational model overly focused on critique, combined with neverbefore-seen political polarisation. He writes, grimly: ‘We are inculcating the attitude of scepticism without teaching the skills of evidence gathering and critical thinking needed to discern what is likely true.’
The problem is that in the human mind, values run hotter than evidence. Essential knee-jerk moralisms (like opposition to sexual taboos) and par-tisan ideologies, whether procorporate or anti-establishment, take centre stage in the battle for our minds. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (2012), argues that when faced by evidence contradicting a deeply held belief, people ‘reason’, but not to find truth. Instead, they reason to support their emotional reactions. ‘If you ask people to be-lieve something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion,’ Haidt writes. ‘They will almost always succeed.’
When it comes to the politics of science, a set of ideologies divide the public on controversies. Otto, with a chart that resembles a tuning fork, separates science sceptics into two broad camps. On one side, an odd couple of ‘old industry’ (oil, chemical, and agricultural companies) and ‘old religion’ have banded together to form right-wing anti-science. Otto calls it a ‘marriage of convenience’. ‘The fundamentalists needed access and legit-imacy and the business interests needed passionate foot soldiers,’ he writes. Together, this right-wing group doubts the science of climate change, evolution, and reproductive health. On the other side, pro-environment liberals have joined with and anti-corporate activists to question mainstream medicine, the safety of vaccines, and worry about the deleterious effects of GMOs.
This is certainly an oversimplification of a problem that is more granular than Otto lets on. Anti-science doesn’t split so neatly along partisan divides. (For example, while liberals tend to be the most active anti-GMO activists, many conservatives are suspicious of GM crops as well.) But his premise helps to unlock the puzzle of why climate change believers like Lynas are often also GMO sceptics. For an environmentalist, belief in sci-ence is not the tantamount value, but rather belief in preserving a partic-ular vision of ‘nature’, one that is external to society but vulnerable to human influence. Within this worldview, anthropogenic climate change makes sense, but so do the dangers of genetic engineering. When value-centred beliefs clash with science, and with an increasingly entertainment-focused news media, which, as Otto argues, is no longer a ‘market-place of ideas’ but a ‘marketplace of emotion’, consensus and evidence take a backseat to more heartfelt beliefs.
That’s a deeply troubling sign for a democratic society. Otto believes that science is essentially anti-authoritarian, that it is a system that relentlessly challenges received wisdom through a rigorous system of peer-review and hypothesis testing. What are we to do, then, when research shows that both the left and the right are unable to set ideology aside when facing scientific questions?
In the final few chapters of Seeds of Science, Lynas begins to understand the real reasons behind his change of heart. His polemic against anti-GMO activists gives way to a sincere exposition on the role of partisanship in science belief. His recantation came, he notes, on the heels of his acceptance into a community of scientists and science journalists and thus into a new ideology (albeit one that placed science first). ‘Deep down,’ he writes, ‘I probably cared less about the actual truth than I did about my reputation for truth within my new scientific tribe…It wasn’t so much that I changed my mind, in other words. It was that I changed my tribe.’ It’s a dark takeaway from a book ostensibly written about the im-portance of facts and evidence.
There are still reasons to oppose GMOs. One of Lynas’ friends, the Oxford-based environmental journalist George Monbiot, believes that the consensus that GMOs are safe changes little about the movement against them. ‘For me, it was all about corporate power, patenting, control, scale and dispossession,’ Monbiot told Lynas. In short, many of the villains countered by the environmental movement. Monbiot thus understands what Lynas initially ignored. Science can tell us about risks, benefits, and safety, but the decision about whether to genetically modify organisms (or, for example, whether to geo-engineer the climate to prevent catastrophic climate change), is a social and political one. It can only be made through use of all-too-human values and deliberation.
What is needed, then, is science as a platform, a foundation on which pol-itics can be built. ‘Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1789. At the end of his book, in a section optimistically titled “Winning the War”, Otto suggests science debates, a scientific code of ethics, journalistic standards for science coverage and much more. He is a cheerleader for an evidence-based democratic society.
In the ‘post-truth’ era where expertise is scoffed at and fact held in disdain, Otto’s scientific city on a hill seems a long way off. Humans that we are, we prefer narrative to evidence, linear stories to complex truths. We accept science when it aligns with our worldview; we doubt it if it does not. But, despite his flaws, Lynas represents the faint hope that under the right conditions we can change our minds; that, over time, the stubbornness of fact can, and might, outweigh the obstinance of ideology.